When a loved one goes missing, hope pulls a family through the limbo of not knowing.
It keeps alive the possibility that the missing one will call, text, or – please, God – walk through the door, feeling embarrassed by the panic the absence caused. Explaining in a rush what happened. Hugging everyone tight enough to break the fright that gripped them.
For the families of four friends reported missing over the course of a week, hope fled on Thursday when Cosmo DiNardo confessed to killing Dean Finocchiaro, Thomas Meo, Mark Sturgis, and Jimi Taro Patrick. Police say he had help from his cousin Sean Kratz. Both have been charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, homicide, and abuse of a corpse.
For the victims' families, hope twisted into grief.
"People will say they can't imagine what those families are going through," says Kevin Verbrugghe. "But I can. We lived it. We're still living it."
On Nov. 27, 2014, his nephew and godson, Shane Montgomery, vanished from Manayunk. Five weeks later, his body was pulled from the Schuylkill River, in which he had drowned after partying with pals on Thanksgiving Eve.
"Our hope lasted 38 days," says Verbrugghe. "When they found Shane, reality hit. Our hearts broke."
The loved ones of DiNardo's victims have joined a sorrowful club that includes the family of Franchesca "Checka"Alvarado, 22, who never returned home to Hunting Park after a trip to Atlantic City in March 2013. She was missing for 18 months before her severed leg washed ashore in Corson's Inlet, N.J. Her death is unsolved.
"I asked God that, if Checka was dead, to give me something, even a little finger of hers, so I would stop worrying that she was being tortured," says Checka's sister Christina Ray. "God gave me a whole leg. That sounds gruesome, unless you know what it's like to have someone missing."
And if you do, you understand.
The family of Iris Tyson, 23, is in the club, too. Iris left her parents' South Philly home May 8, 2011, to buy her mom a Mother's Day card. Her parents reported her missing that evening. One agonizing week later, her beaten body was found in a weedy lot in Point Breeze; she had not been robbed or sexually assaulted. Her murder is still a mystery.
"Time heals all wounds — but not this," says her father, Joe Tyson, who thinks of his only child "every second of every day."
If he knew who killed Iris, he says, he may begin to feel some peace in a world gone dim without her.
But at least he no longer wonders where she is. Other families of the missing are denied that cold comfort, says Todd Matthews. He's director of case management and communications for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a database of missing people overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice.
On average, he says, 90,000 people are missing in the United States at any time. And about 40,000 unidentified human remains are in the offices of the nation's medical examiners and coroners or were buried or cremated before being identified.
"Having someone missing, long-term, is harder for families to live with than a death," Matthews says. "We're programmed, since the beginning of mankind, to process death: We mark graves with flowers, we work to accept the loss, process the grief, and try to move on."
"How do you move on when someone is missing? People say, 'I can't move or change my number; what if they try to find me?' They get stuck. I've seen it destroy families."
Statistics show that most people who go missing return home. But that statistic does nothing to calm a family's fears in the midst of a loved one's unexplained absence.
As I write this, the family of Todd McKee just announced that his body was found Friday morning in the surf of Rehoboth Beach, Del. He was the partner of Jeff Guaracino, president and CEO of Wawa Welcome America, and he went missing July 8. Investigators don't suspect foul play.
In the last week, Guaracino's Facebook posts have been filled with pleas for prayers and hope for McKee's safe return.